Warning: Minor character death
Deals and Deceptions
Jack struck his staff into the pavement. "Always." A web of ice spiraled from the point of impact. The ice was thick and jagged, unlike the sheer frost that typically flowed from it.
"Doesn't seem like it."
"This really isn't a good time to be playing games with me," Jack warned him.
"You think this is a game? On the contrary," Pitch twisted his wrist, cracking the joint as he strode past Jack, circling him like a predator might to its prey. "It troubles me to see you like this, Jack. So—" his wrist cracked on cue. "Distraught."
Despite being shadowed for the past hour by him, Jack had avoided acknowledging his presence until now. Since Pitch seemed insistent on instigating something, ignoring him was proving increasingly difficult. Pitch was trying to get a rise out of him and to Jack's hatred, it was working.
Pitch kicked Jack's staff but he had a firm grip. When the staff didn't even budge, Pitch laughed. "Tense, are we?"
Jack thrust out his staff, preventing Pitch from walking further. It barred him from circling him any further, bringing both of them to a cool stand-off. As if testing Jack's newly defensive stance, Pitch lifted a skeletal, shadowy finger and trailed it across the length of the staff, sending shivers into Jack's stomach.
He almost dropped the staff. Almost.
If he backed down now, it would make Pitch seem like the strong one. That was far from true. Since the Guardians had gathered nearly fifteen years ago, Pitch had been reduced to a frail, thin complexion of his former self. Sure. Darkness still enshrouded him, but there was now this fragility to him that had never existed before. He was the weak one. Not Jack.
Jack shoved his staff against Pitch's chest. "Back off."
"You know. I enjoy watching the peaceful deaths," Pitch said suddenly, shaking a finger at him. He was taunting him. "Ever watched the ceremonies that follow after them? People are so interesting. Go to that girl's funeral and see for yourself. Watch how they come and go, placing flowers her body when really, who wants flowers when you're dead? But it's the violent deaths that I really enjoy the most. Do you know why?"
Don't listen to him, Jack told himself.
"The excitement," Pitch continued. "Surely, you saw it to. Seeing that vibrant life ripped slowly from her body. Though, you did a valiant job trying to save her life. I do give you credit for that."
Jack barely noticed the darkness that was now enshrouding him. Shadows snaked around his neck, pooling down around his feet. He leapt back, shaking any lingering shadows from his shoulders and seized the shadows into ice out of defense. Jack was prepared to hurl the ice formations into his direction with full force.
Then he stopped. Although they were unseen in this part of town, Jack knew the ice would surely cause collateral damage to the surrounding foliage, delicate lights and front shop windows or even worse...to other people who passed through them unknowingly.
Jack dispelled the ice into a light flutter of snow. Nothing more.
"That was weak coming from you," Pitch laughed then, "Honestly, I had been expecting more. It seems that girl's sudden death had more of an impact on you than I thought."
Jack had to leave before he did something truly disastrous he'd later regret. He threw his hood over his head then, gathered ice crystals from the air underneath his fingers and was prepared to take himself airborne when Pitch said something that made him freeze.
"I could help you," he offered. "It's not too late."
Jack confronted him now. He whisked his hood back and considered what Pitch had said. He wanted something from him. Of that, Jack had no doubt. "I don't need your kind of help," Jack said. "Why waste your time finding me?"
"I was drawn to your fear. The fear that you couldn't save that girl's life." Pitch boasted and Jack swore, he seemed to gain just the slightest bit of strength. He wrapped an arm around Jack's shoulders and pulled him near. "It's an intoxicating feeling."
"You were there," Jack realized. "And you did nothing?"
"Think about this now," Pitch said, showing no remorse. "Why would I—" he jabbed his thumb into his chest. "Help the same girl who ruined me? The first girl who stood up against me. One of the first who believed in you—" he jabbed his finger against Jack's chest. "What was her name now? Sonia…Sasha…"
"Ah," Pitch snapped his fingers. "Yes, that's the one. That heathen—"
Jack threw his fist. It struck Pitch right in the jaw, leaving a coat of frost burning the side of his face. The blow took Pitch by surprise and left him stunned because Jack managed to even throw a second punch. But by the third time Pitch had reoriented himself and blocked him. Despite being such a frail shadow of his former self, Pitch was still strong. He grabbed Jack's hand, stopping another punch from being thrown. He crushed his grip around Jack's fist, holding him firmly in place.
"Finally," Pitch muttered. "I have your attention."
"There's nothing you could do for me that I'd ever want," Jack told him, struggling to free his arm. When he successfully wrested his hand out of Pitch's grip however, he didn't run. Something inside him was aching to know the extent of Pitch's offer.
"But you are so wrong," Pitch said. "I may not have the same powers as that of the Moon. I can't choose whom to curse to forever roam this world or who should be eternally laid to rest. But what I can give to you is the power you could have used to save that girl in the first place. My power. You'd never have to watch anyone die before his or her time ever again. That's my promise to you."
"That's far too noble coming from you."
Pitch laughed as if he Jack had just cracked the punch line of some joke. "Your words hurt me. Listen. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. It's as simple as that. And to show the sincerity of my offer, I'm willing to scratch yours first. Anything you might need in the future, let me know and I will go out of my way to do it for you. You have no obligation to help me until then. All I ask for in return is the next time I need assistance, you will be there to serve me."
"No," Jack said, without thinking twice. "That's my final answer."
"At least consider my offer. What's the worst that can happen?" he asked. "We shake on it and who knows? Maybe you never ask for my help and I won't ever bother you again. That choice will be entirely yours."
"I said 'no'!" Jack insisted. He raked his fingers through his white hair. "Accepting 'no' for an answer must be too simple of an answer even for you."
Before Pitch could stop him a second time, Jack took to the sky. His mind wandered freely. He thought of pleasant things like hot chocolate steaming from paper cup or children's hands clad with soft mittens. Sleds barreling down clean, barren hills coated with snow. Making snow angels in empty fields.
Cars with brakes that skid across unseen ice.
Snowflakes catching onto someone's eyelashes. Ice storms that encased trees and streets in an inch of pristine ice, preserving a world that was so alive and vibrant beneath it.
Fire swallowing engines, scorching the underside of a car as flames rose into the interior. Screaming for help. Oh, the screaming. Then the smell of burning upholstery and flesh. And no amount of frost Jack poured on it could smother the fire or soothe the burning by the time he arrived. Seventeen. That was how old Sophie was when she burned alive that night.
Jack cringed at the memory and tried to drive the sickening feeling he felt out of him. He clenched his fists and engulfed the town below him in a barrage of snow flurries and ice, leaving a winter storm to unleash its fury soon enough. Sometimes he wanted to stay and watch it freeze.
The thing about snow was how it could turn an ugly thing into something beautiful in this cold world. So the day of Sophie's funeral, Jack made certain it was snowing. Not a cold snow. A soft, beautiful snow that dusted the ground delicately.
Jamie was there too.
He had stopped believing in Jack ages ago, but Jack didn't blame him. Once children reached a certain age, they no longer believed in the things they once used to. Jack liked to believe Jamie would be different from the rest, but as North reminded him, it was a fate that befell all children.
Even Jamie was not immune to the aging process.
There finally came a day when Jack stopped visiting him on the nights the first frost fell. It had been a few years since the last time Jack had seen him considering, but it still amazed him how fast Jamie had grown. Jack didn't know much about Jamie anymore, other than that he no longer had freckles and this would be his final year in high school.
He was wearing a black parka over a crewneck cut shirt. In his hands were a few white roses. He placed them over a closed casket. There were little words exchanged between him and others. Mostly it was a show of uncomfortable embraces. People didn't know what else to say. Condolences could only be voiced so much.
It was clear Jamie was hurting, but even that didn't compare to the pain his mother felt. Her eyes were sunk from lack of sleep and ill nourishment. The wrinkles in her face had become less elegant, making her entire complexion crumble.
Jack watched from the distance. It didn't seem right to intrude too close on the funeral, so he stayed back. Roaming the outskirts of the graveyard grounds allowed Jack to keep watch over the crowd anyway. He made sure nothing intruded on them, mainly Pitch.
The snow was already swirling faster defensively around him. Jack barely recognized the voice until he turned the right direction. It was the Tooth fairy.
Immediately, the snow stilled. Even though over fifteen years ago had passed since they had all defended the world against Pitch, there had never been a need to gather again. That said, encounters with the guardians were infrequent at best. So when the Tooth fairy appeared before him, it took Jack by surprise.
"Tooth?" he asked. "It's been a while. What are you doing here?"
The fact that Jack was here too seemed to take the Tooth fairy by surprise as well. She hesitated. It became apparent that she had not been expecting to run into Jack either. She smoothed the feathers decorating her cheekbone nervously. "Collecting teeth," she replied. "And memories, of course."
Jack planted his staff into the ground and forced a smile. "Dumb question, sorry."
"Nonsense," she assured him. "I was just passing overhead when I saw you here. Jack. Is there a reason you're here? You know what this is, don't you? It's…it's unusual for a guardian to attend events like these."
"I..." Jack's voice trailed thin. "I wanted to be here."
A frown creased the corners of the Tooth fairy's face. Her decorative feathers seemed to wilt around her. "You knew her, didn't you?" she said.
"We all knew her, "Jack reminded her. "It's Sophie Bennett. Remember? The little two-year old that managed to sneak her way into the Easter Bunny's lair?"
"Jack...this is why it's never good for a guardian to get too attached to someone. You can love many children, but when you single that love to a select few, it will do nothing but hurt you in the end. Trust me. I've been there. I know."
"Your saying you don't remember her? Tell me you don't feel something."
The Tooth fairy hesitated before speaking again. "I'm worried about you, Jack. Did something happen?"
"What? No!" Jack told her, which was an outright lie. But sometimes lying could be so much easier than confronting the truth.
"If you say so." She said nothing more about it. "I have to go now. Lots of work to do. We'll talk more later, okay Jack? It's been far too long. Let's talk later. I mean it this time!"
Every time she said that however, Jack would never see her again for another few months. A part of him wished she would visit more frequently. North certainly never did and the Easter Bunny? Well. It was probably better if they didn't see each other but once a year when Jack made a point to spread some extra frost around on Easter Day.
That left the Sandman, whose company Jack truly enjoyed. He just wasn't the most conversational of the group.
Suddenly, Jack heard a scream. A horrifying scream that chilled and tore him from the inside. There was no mistaking it. That scream for help had come from the Tooth fairy. He searched the skies desperately.
"Tooth!" Jack shouted.
He dashed into the air, using icy crystals in the air to propel himself upward. He scanned the area for any sign of her. Something drifted out of the sky. One hit the side of Jack's face before he grabbed one. It was a torn feather, the color of mint and sage. He turned his eyes to the sky.
Jack charged upward. He still couldn't see what was happening.
That's when he saw her.
She was falling. Too fast.
There had been a struggle, Jack could tell. The feathers decorating her left arm had been torn from her skin, revealing a patch of bleeding, ivory flesh. "Tooth!" he hollered. She was unconscious. Jack dashed toward her, but she was falling faster than Jack could catch her. To save herself, she needed to wake up. "Snap out of it!"
"Really now," Pitch suddenly appeared by his side. "This fear is becoming so familiar. You're far too easy to detect these days."
The thing about shadows were how fast they were. Shadow moved only as fast as light and where there was light, there would always be shadow. So for Pitch, speed was an inconsequential matter to him. Right now, he was falling at a pace that equaled Jack's free-falling. But Pitch had the potential to be so much faster. "Help her!" Jack said.
"I'd love to, Jack. Truly, I would," Pitch told him. "But what would I have to gain from the loss of such a guardian? Honestly, it wouldn't affect me. But I wonder. Would her loss affect you?"
"Pitch!" Jack begged, falling toward the ground. "I can't reach her in time! Hurry!"
"What was that?" Pitch egged him further. "Did you say something?"
"Help her," Jack said, knowing fully well he was playing right into Pitch's hands. "I know you can do it. That's what you've been wanting. I'll help you with something in return. It's a deal."
"Anything! Just save her, Pitch!"
Pitch whistled through his teeth. "Deal. The word of a guardian works is as good of a promise to me."
That was all Pitch needed to evaporate into darkness and envelop the Tooth fairy gently into his clutches, cradling her beaten form in the comfort of his shadows. A smirk graced his lips. He laid her gently on the ground below, lifted his head toward the sky to make sure Jack was looking. Then he vanished into the ground, blending between the blades of cold grass.
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